Karina Longworth on Charles Manson and her favorite You Must Remember This episodes

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Karina Longworth on Charles Manson and her favorite You Must Remember This episodes

Karina Longworth (Photo: Meghann Lee)
Karina Longworth (Photo: Meghann Lee)

Bestcasts asks podcasters to discuss the three most memorable episodes of their podcast. Ties are allowed/encouraged. For more podcast coverage, see Podmass,The A.V. Club’s weekly roundup of the best ’casts out there.

The podcaster: When You Must Remember This was introduced back in 2014, it was a way for its host, Karina Longworth, to celebrate her love for Hollywood’s first century on an episode-by-episode scale. Two years later, Longworth’s love for old Hollywood hasn’t waned, but the scale of You Must Remember This has broadened dramatically. These days, Longworth is taking on bigger, wider issues 10 or 12 episodes at a time, looking at how Charles Manson infiltrated L.A.’s entertainment scene or talking, bit by bit, about things like the MGM studio system or the Hollywood blacklist. It’s all fascinating, even if you might not know the intricacies of Elizabeth Taylor’s career, and Longworth’s storytelling style and soothing voice make You Must Remember This one of podcasting’s most interesting must-listen properties.

Episode 4: “(The Printing Of) The Legend Of Frances Farmer

The A.V. Club: Why did you pick this episode?

Karina Longworth: I wanted to pick something from the very early days of the show, when I wasn’t really sure what the show was yet, and I think that this is a really good example of me figuring out what the show is while I was doing it. Ultimately, I think it turned into one of the quintessential episodes because it’s not just a straight biography of Frances Farmer. It’s sort of a historiography. It’s about these things that have been written and said about her.

AVC: It’s also about how she fits into society as a whole.

KL: Yes. It looks at these movie stars and the way they get turned into symbols, comparing and contrasting that with what their real lives were like.

AVC: When you look back on this episode, what strikes you about how the show has changed?

KL: Not much has changed as far as my process. It was during this point very early on when nobody was asking me to do the show at all. I was just doing it out of my own desire to do it, so I was on no schedule. I could take as long as I wanted to produce an episode. But I was conscious of the fact that if it were going to be a real thing, I should try and do it regularly. So I was trying to see if I could produce an episode—completely write it and research it and record it and edit it—all by myself in a week. That was the challenge I set forth for myself beginning with that episode, and I completely failed.

One of the reasons why I failed was because I figured out in the research process that I couldn’t tell it as just, “This is what Frances Farmer’s life was like.” There are so many questions as to what her life was like because of the way her story has been seized upon and exploited by different factions. I figured out that that had to become the story. But then, because I wasn’t able to just research and write it from beginning to end—it took extra long to research and write, basically.

Also, what I remember from recording that—or maybe not that episode—is that it might have been our anniversary. That probably doesn’t line up in terms of dates, but for some reason, my boyfriend and I stayed in a hotel not very far from where we lived for a night. I remember being in that neighborhood the next day, and I didn’t really want to go home yet, so I was walking around this neighborhood that I don’t live in, thinking about how hard it was to write this episode. I had been wondering if I really knew what I was doing in trying to force myself to make a lot of these and make them quickly. The fact that I was able to pull off what I think is a pretty good episode—it feels good because it was so hard and because I was really doubting myself in the process.

AVC: How were you picking episode topics when you started?

KL: It was really stories that I knew enough about to know that I was interested in but didn’t really know anything about.

For instance, another episode I did around that time was about Judy Garland’s relationship with Stonewall. I know a lot about Judy Garland. I have a degree in cinema studies and the big paper I wrote at the end of that was about Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli. So I thought that I knew quite a bit about Judy Garland, but I read in passing that the Stonewall riots were a reaction to her death and I had never really read enough to know what that meant or how that could be true. I was interested in that I knew so much about Judy Garland, but I really didn’t know this story.

Charles Manson’s Hollywood Part 3: The Beach Boys, Dennis Wilson, And Manson The Songwriter

AVC: Why did this one make the cut?

KL: I picked that one, I think, because it’s one of my favorite moments in [Charles Manson’s Hollywood]. That series got a lot of attention and people talk about it a lot, but they tend to focus on the episodes that have more to do with the murder, Charles Manson doing something particularly weird, or Sharon Tate. For me, the Dennis Wilson story is a quintessential You Must Remember This story because it’s one of these stories that people never talk about, don’t really think about, and it’s forgotten within this major thing that is thought to be this cataclysmic event of the 20th century.

The thing that breaks my heart about [Dennis Wilson] is that he was very naïve from the beginning to the end. I don’t know if it’s entirely fair to blame his early death and complete self-destruction on his involvement with Charles Manson, but it was certainly a factor. It affected him psychologically and emotionally.

One thing that was really interesting to me was the idea of the survivors of all of this. What was it like? You read these stories of people who were in Hollywood in the late ’60s. After they found out about the murders, everybody was like, “Have you met Manson? Have you been to that ranch?” In some way, everybody felt connected, but what was it like for people who really were connected and who weren’t just telling cocktail party stories?

AVC: That’s a good point. For people who—it’s not fair to say aided and abetted because that’s not what happened—but maybe who were fooled by the whole thing.

KL: Well, I don’t know if it’s fair to say “fooled.” I think it’s more complicated than that. But with Dennis Wilson, he was somebody who had a seemingly good heart and liked to party and I think he’s an example of a lot of people during that time where they thought the world was opening up and becoming more free, but in reality, the open doors were just letting really bad shit in. And some of that bad shit was Manson. Some of it was Nixon. The ’60s were really taking a turn into the ’70s very rapidly at this time.

AVC: How often do you find parallels between what happens now in Hollywood and what happened years ago?

KL: Hollywood is really weird to talk about in this monolithic sense because it’s this microcosm of anywhere. It’s full of a lot of people who have different intentions and different points of view. But that said, there are some endemic problems and some things that happen over and over again. There’s the problem of representation of basically anybody but white men. These are things that we talk about a lot in contemporary culture, and it’s interesting to me to go look at film history from the perspective of today.

The tagline of the show is “The secret—and/or forgotten history—of Hollywood’s first century.” A lot of the stories on the show are the forgotten stories, and the secret history is really looking at things from a feminist perspective, or looking at it from a perspective where you’re not just seeing the white male point of view as being necessarily correct. In that way, the history is always in dialogue with the present.

But in terms of the way the industry operates, the studio system was such its own thing. It’s so different now that it’s a globalized world.

“MGM Stories Part Ten: David O. Selznick, The Mayers, & Gone With The Wind”
“MGM Stories Part Eleven: David O. Selznick, Jennifer Jones, and Robert Walker”

AVC: Normally we ask podcasters to pick just three episodes, but this one’s a two-parter, so we let it slide. Why did this make the list?

KL: I just think the David O. Selznick story is one of the great, epic stories of Hollywood history that nobody knows. Maybe one of the reasons why nobody knows it is because he wasn’t a movie star. If you look at pictures of him, he wasn’t even attractive. There’s no way to portray him in a way that is glamorous, but that’s one of the things that’s fascinating to me about him.

There’s a fantastic, thousand-page book by David Thomson about him. Again, it’s not the best argument or the best advertisement for his story, because most people aren’t going to read a thousand-page book. But I feel like the rise and fall and the work [Mayer] produced—not just the movies, but the memos, the volume of writing—he’s just so passionate, and that’s really exciting. He basically passes through the Mayer family and is this really exciting figure, but then he also breaks a lot of hearts and destroys lives. Then he hitches his wagon to the woman who became known as Jennifer Jones, and then tragedy really ensued.

AVC: It’s both a business story and a romantic story. That being said, it’s not really romantic. It’s more of a business relationship that also happened to be a marriage.

KL: Yeah, it’s kind of fucked up. There’s a recent book called West Of Eden that’s basically an oral histories in five parts, and one of the parts is about Jennifer Jones and her family and that history. If people are interested, that came out after I did that episode. They should check that out.

AVC: What show have you done that’s gotten the strongest reaction? Is it just the Manson series, or is there anything surprising?

KL: Definitely that series. It’s the most popular series.

One thing about the show is that the audience size has been growing incrementally from episode to episode, so that’s really exciting to see, because the stuff that I’ve been doing lately is political. It’s not always about people who are super famous movie stars. The fact that people are still taking a chance and listening to the blacklist episodes is really exciting.

What’s interesting, too, is the way that individual episodes get a reputation through word of mouth, people on Twitter or whatever saying, “You have to listen to this episode because this thing happens.” One of those episodes is the episode I did on Carole Lombard because I actually started crying when I was reading my script and you can hear it. That’s become one of those Easter eggs that people tell each other about.

AVC: It’s interesting that you left it in there.

KL: You know, it’s good drama. As a performer, I could be like, “I don’t want to leave that in there.” But as a producer, I have to leave it in there.

AVC: Do you have subjects that you haven’t been able to tackle yet, or you haven’t been able to figure a way into?

KL: Not really, to be honest. It’s just that I haven’t had time. At this point I really feel like I could do anything if given enough time.

It’s very different now than it was when I did the Frances Farmer episode. Now I’m in a situation where I have to plan very far ahead because there are people who are selling ads, so I have to really know what I’m going to do months in advance. If something’s taking me a little bit longer to research, that’s not okay. I can’t take longer. I have to just get it done. So before I commit to doing a season or doing a specific episode, I have to know that there’s a story there and I have to have an idea of what the story is.